The older Indian man looks up from his newspaper, failing to recognize the woman who has singled him out.
I look up from my computer as I’m writing and glance across Starbucks. I didn’t notice the man before. He blended in so well, it took me a second to realize yes, he was Indian.
I don’t hear how they know each other, but I see that he is known through his profession in some capacity.
They talk about what the other is doing. She runs a women’s consignment shop in the area. She asks about his kids.
“My daughter’s good, she’s graduated from LSU.” I miss what she does for a living, but I do catch onto her romantic life. “She’s still single, but I’m looking for a husband for her.” He laughs. “She’s my only one. I have to take care of her, you know?”
The woman laughs and agrees. She goes on about how she likes Indians and how she knows an Indian family who owns gas stations.
After a minute’s exchange, she leaves the Starbucks and wishes him well. He continues to read his newspaper in silence.
It is a familiar scene, one especially familiar to me. He is an Indian doctor, much like my own father. For many South Louisianans, this is one of the few Indian-Americans they will ever meet. His well-dressed and reserved demeanor is tinged with an Indian accent. He reminds me of my uncle.
In their short conversation, I notice clichés with which every Indian-American is familiar. A majority of Indian-Americans has a relative who is a doctor (if you’re not one yourself). It is a sure sign of success, and in a culture that values intelligence and hard work, medicine guarantees financial security. The appeal of Science Technology Engineering Medicine (STEM) fields not only garners respect from the Indian community, but it also ensures that you can provide for your family.
I challenge the Indian-American mold in any way I can, but I am one of few. Our culture differs vastly from the West. We silently acclimate, but for many of us, our roots go back a generation or two. India is never too distant for us.
Our American homes are filled with Indian art, language, food, and traditions. We fit into society in the respect that we are not “problematic” immigrants. We run the hotel you stay in; we draw up your bridges; we care for you when you’re sick. But you do not watch our films, you don’t listen to our music on the radio; and unless you’re adventurous, you probably haven’t sampled our cuisine. Raised in a white household, even I have had little encounter with Indian culture, save my annual visits to see my grandmother.
We excel at American standardized tests and thrive in the educational structure. All while we come to a home where we are reminded how hard our parents worked to give us what we enjoy today. And in a culture where children regard duty as fulfillment, we gravitate to the STEM fields our community celebrates. That’s how they made it in America, and it’s certain that it is how we will too.
Indian-American kids who challenge this are inevitably met with a surprised reaction. My Indian family is supportive of my career choice, but affected by such exchanges, I planned on becoming a doctor growing up.
“Are you smart, Aryanna?” my nani asked in her broken English. Hesitant to answer such a subjective question, I finally said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Good,” she said decidedly. “Then you will become a doctor, right?”
I laughed at the question. How was my fate to be decided at ten years old? “Yeah, okay,” I answered. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to displease her.
Years later, I spoke with an auntie during my first year of college. “Now, what are you studying, beti? Biology?”
“No, journalism, actually.” I laughed. She expressed interest and pride, which is what my family has always done. But her two daughters work in medicine, her husband is an engineer, and three of my Nani’s five children work in medicine. My family was able to come to America because my grandfather is a doctor. Assuming I was a biology major was not insulting, but natural.
Because we stay in these fields, other Americans cannot appreciate our diversity. Yes, we make good doctors. But we make good writers and actors and artists. My older cousins have proved this, as have many Indian-Americans of my generation. Many of us use the determination and intellect our parents have given us, but we are applying this to succeed in a variety of fields.
That being said, I was the only Indian-American from my gifted high school majoring in the humanities. I once heard two friends criticizing another friend majoring in international studies (one of my majors, in fact) because she was “too smart to be doing something like that”.
The mold exists, and we are the ones holding it firm. Kids my age are still majoring in STEM and dating Indian kids at the behest of their parents to whom family is everything. We go the surefire route, and no other American subculture is really that different. We comprise 0.9% of the U.S. population, and we usually meet each other in gifted programs or medical school classes. We do not conflict with American culture, but American culture conflicts with us. We are divided with two identities, and every young Indian-American is faced with a choice: do I follow or stray from the beaten path?
The stray path can become more common, and America can include knowledge of Bharat, but Indian-Americans must initialise this change.
To many Americans, we are like Dr. Singh, seen through a narrow lens and lumped with other Indian Americans. India is so diverse, and our American reputation needs to mirror this. We are a nation celebrated for thinkers, philosophers, prophets, writers, and artists- not only doctors and businessmen.
For more of Aryanna’s work checkout her Blog!